Itinerant Creeds: The Chinese Northern Frontier by Paola Demattè

Gansu: Heishan

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Rock art with Buddhist elements is known elsewhere in western China, such as at sites in the Heishan mountains of Gansu province. Even though the Heishan, like the Yinshan, appear rocky and desert-like, its canyons are rich in water and other resources necessary for human survival. Here, rock art locations number in the hundreds and are mostly concentrated in three canyons: Mozi gou, Hongliu gou, Sidaoguxing gou. These are approximately twenty kilometers northwest of Jiayuguan, a Chinese military garrison and outpost at the western end of the Great Wall. This position is significant since Jiayuguan was established during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E. – 220 CE) to guard a key access pass to the east-west caravan route (i.e. the Silk Road), then threatened by bandits and nomad attacks.

At Hongliugou, petroglyphs were carved at different heights on both sides of the canyons walls and often appear in groups. Most clusters include just a few engravings of animals that are sometimes barely visible, but some larger panels show more elaborate scenes. The engravings feature animals, humans engaged in varied activities, symbols, as well as inscriptions. The themes and iconography suggest that they were probably the product of the ritual and political activities of prehistoric nomads and historic pastoralist populations who successively inhabited the area (Gansu Provincial Museum 1990; Jiayuguan City Cultural Heritage Investigative Team 1972).

A small rock panel representing birds, snakes, bulls and tigers, which are now extinct in the area, suggests that at least some of the Heishan petroglyphs date to the late prehistoric or early historic period of the Chinese northern frontier. These phases are associated with the activities of early inner Asian pastoralists who fought for control of this area up to the time of the Han expansion in the first centuries B.C.E. Some of these groups, such as the Qiang, Xiongnu, and Yuezhi, are mentioned in Chinese sources and are also known from archaeological remains. Metal ornaments and weapons excavated from Xiongnu burials are often decorated with representation of wild animals (particularly tigers) or of animal combat very similar to those visible in rock panels (Di Cosmo 1994; Bunker 1997). Deeper in the canyon, a large panel on a flat rock surface features an elaborate narrative that represents about 30 human figures and a few animals engaged in what could be a dance or performance (Figure 3). People appear to wear long and heavy garments tight at the waist, boots and in some cases feathery or ornamented headdresses. These images may represent the attires of historic Tibetan or Mongolian pastoral nomads, or those of the prehistoric or historic ancestors of these ethnic groups, such as the already mentioned Qiang and Yuezhi (Gansu Provincial Museum 1990).

At a few locations in the canyons, images of camels indicate that carving continued also in later historic times,when the area became increasingly dry and the camel was introduced to substitute the horse for work and transport. These later carving activities are confirmed by engravings that can be dated with more precision. Several images represent Buddhist symbols (such as pagodas, Buddhas, or Buddhist halls) and sometimes carry inscribed prayers in old Tibetan. The images of pagodas are most instructive, because though two-dimensional, they are essentially identical to those found at Buddhist grotto sites in Gansu and beyond. This production falls well into the historic period and ranges from the early-middle Tang (618-906 C.E.) to the Song (960-1279 C.E.) and Yuan (1279-1368 C.E.) dynastic periods (Gansu Provincial Museum 1990). Interestingly, these are not the most recent marks. In the Hongliugou canyon there are also Chinese official inscriptions and Buddhist symbols dating to the Ming and Qing periods. Inscriptions ordinarily are not considered part of rock art, yet their presence here shows how people subscribing to different belief systems claimed the same surfaces and used them in similar ways.
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Itinerant Creeds: The Chinese Northern Frontier
Cults of Place: Mountains, Rivers and Beyond
→ Case Studies: Inner Mongolia: Yinshan
→ Case Studies: Ningxia: Helankou
→ Case Studies: Gansu: Heishan
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